It was around 6:00 a.m. on Monday, September 1, 1969. I was headed into my third year in college and into my second year of competitive amateur boxing. I had gotten up early that first morning of September to head out for a fast-paced three-mile run, then jump in the pool. Before I left the house on Long Island, I went outside and picked up the morning’s papers, which were delivered to my home and left on the front steps. It was a morning ritual for me, always an early riser, to go outside, retrieve Newsday and the New York Daily News, then tiptoe into my parent’s bedroom and leave the papers on my father’s side of the bed. As I picked up the papers, I looked at the headlines on both of the papers. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
“ROCKY MARCIANO DEAD AT 45” was the headline on the Daily News. The sub-headline underneath read, “Former Heavyweight Champ Dies in Plane Crash.”
I was stunned. I quickly took Newsday out of its protective plastic bag.
Newsday’s headline was “MARCIANO KILLED IN PLANE CRASH.”
I was breathing harder than if I had just finished my three-mile run. I needed to share this horrible information with someone.
Why not? It was only natural. My dad, Carl, was the one who introduced me to boxing 10 years earlier. I needed to wake him. Had to wake him.
I quietly opened the door to mom and dad’s room, then entered. I walked around to my sleeping dad. I took another look at the headline on Newsday, just to make sure I read it right. I did. I wished it wasn’t true.
“Dad!” I whispered. He didn’t budge. My second “Dad!” got him to open his eyes.
He looked at me and lifted his head off his pillow. He looked at the clock. It was a minute or two after 6:00.
“What is it, Randy?” he questioned softly. Is everything okay?
“Dad, look at the headlines,” I said. I showed him Newsday, then held up the Daily News.
“Good Lord!” he exclaimed. He said it a few more times. Rocky Marciano was one of my dad’s favorite fighters.
Then he turned to my mom, Roberta.
“Honey, wake up!” he said, tapping her lightly on a shoulder. “Wake up!”
She half-opened her eyes.
“Ughhh, what is it?” she mumbled, still half asleep. “What is it?”
He took the papers from my hands and held them over mom’s face.
“Look!” he said.
She opened her eyes to read. In a flash, the sleep left her. Her mouth fell open.
“OH MY…” she clamped her hands over her mouth before she could finish.
“Rocky is dead?” my dad asked. “How could that be? He was still a young man. How’d he die?”
“He died in a plane crash, dad,” I said. The news hit home even harder. My dad was a pilot.
He sprung up in bed and began reading one of the papers.
My mom rubbed the sleep from her eyes. I handed her the other paper.
“Rocky was in a Cessna 172 when it crashed into a corn field in Newton, Iowa,” said my dad. “It appears there was bad weather.”
He took a deep breath. You could see he was moved.
“Rocky was one of the greats,” said my dad. “Next to Joe Louis, he may have been the greatest heavyweight of all time. And, guess what…today would have been Rocky’s 46th birthday.”
In 1969, there was no Youtube, no internet. My 10-year journey into boxing consisted of hearing stories from my dad, reading Ring Magazine and all the local papers. I truly considered Ring Magazine to be, as founder Nat Fleischer called his publication, the “Bible ofBoxing.” In being the bible, I also looked at Fleischer to be the creator of all things boxing. His word was gospel.
The news of Marciano’s death was nothing less than shocking. How could “The Rock” be gone? I couldn’t believe it. I wanted to know more about Marciano. How great was he? Where did he fit in amongst the great heavyweights of the past? I decided I had to speak with Nat Fleischer himself. I decided to call him later that morning. Then, I decided I wouldn’t give a secretary a chance to make up an excuse he was busy. I decided to go to his office and sit there for as long as I had to in order to meet him and talk with him.
The Ring offices were located in an old six-story building at 120 W. 31st Street in New York City. They had been in Madison Square Garden on 49th Street for years, relocating after that MSG faced the wrecking ball and the current MSG was opened in the late 1960’s.
I got to the building shortly before 9:00a.m., Monday, September 1. I checked the directory on the wall and quickly found what I was looking for: Ring Publishing Corp, 5th Fl.
I excitedly stepped into the small elevator behind me and pressed the button withthe number 5 on it. Little did I know, but that elevator would take me up and down to The Ring offices thousands of times, beginning in another 10 years.
When the door opened, several odors were immediately evident: Cigarettes. Cigars. Perfume. Cologne. Mold. Mildew.
“May I help you,” said a woman in an office with a sliding window to my right.
“Yes, I’m hoping to see Mr. Fleischer,” I told her.
“Do you have an appointment with Mr. Fleischer?” the lady asked.
“No, I don’t,” I said, “but I have been reading Ring since I was a child and…”
She cut me off.
“I’m sorry, young man, but if you don’t have an appointment with Mr. Fleischer, there is no way you can see him. He is very busy.”
I tried explaining my desire to speak with the founder of Ring, but the lady kept apologizing and telling me she was sorry. Finally, she said in a stern voice, “Young man, I appreciate your enthusiasm, but Mr. Fleischer is very busy. There will be a TV crew coming in soon to interview him. I’m sure you heard that Rocky Marciano has died in a plane crash. Mr. Fleischer will be doing interviews all morning.”
I sighed and nodded. Then I turned and went to press the button for the elevator. At that moment, the door to Nat Fleischer’s office opened. Out walked the balding, short, roundish founder of The Ring, the man who began rating fighters, the man whose opinion in the sport was heard and worshipped the way Moses heard and worshipped his Lord in front of the burning bush over 2,000 years ago.
“Mr. Fleischer,” I said, moving towards him. “Boxing lost such a great fighter last night. I am an avid reader of The Ring. I live on Long Island and just had to come in to meet you and talk to you. I know you’re very busy, but if you can give me just five minutes, I would be honored.”
He looked at me and for a moment—it seemed like an hour—he stared at me. Then he spoke.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your name, son,” he said.
“It’s Randy, sir. Randy Gordon,” I replied nervously.
“Mr. Gordon, I would love to speak with you,” he said. Turning to the receptionist, he said, “Millie, will you please show Mr. Gordon into my office? I must talk with Nat for a few moments.”
“Nat?” I thought. “Nat must talk with Nat? It’s got to be Nat Loubet, the Managing Editor, Fleischer’s son-in-law, and the heir apparent to Fleischer’s throne.
“Would that be Nat Loubet you’re meeting with?” I asked, quickly realizing I was out-of-place for doing so.
“Yes it is,” laughed the most respected boxing journalist in the world. Then he gave me a playful smack on the top of my head.
“Millie, take this young man into my office and give him a few copies of his favorite reading material.”
We walked into a neat office with framed issues of The Ring hanging on the walls, along with photos of Nat Fleischer giving and receiving awards. There he was with Jack Dempsey. With Joe Louis. With Sugar Ray Robinson. With Willie Pep. With Henry Armstrong. With Gene Tunney.
This was the office, which, in 15 years, I would sit in—at that very same desk—as Editor-in-Chief of the magazine which Fleischer gave life to in 1922 and which Bert Sugar and I brought back from the dead in 1979.
I walked around the room. I looked at the photos. My love for the sport intensified with every minute I stayed there. Then, as I was looking at a photo of Nat Fleischer presenting an award to Rocky Marciano, the door leading from Loubet’s office to Fleischer’s opened. In walked Fleischer. He saw me looking at the photo of him and Marciano.
“I was presenting Rocky with the ‘Fighter of the Year Award’ at the Downtown Athletic Club,” said Fleischer. He motioned to the couch in his office.
“Sit, Mr. Gordon,” he said. “Stay and talk about Rocky Marciano.”
“Thank you, Mr. Fleischer,” I said, adding, “Please call me Randy. Mr. Gordon is my father.”
Then, showing a sense of humor, he said, “Then you can call me Nat. Mr. Fleischer is my father!”
I walked over and sat on the couch. He walked over and sat down a few feet away. Then he turned and asked, “So, do you think Marciano was the greatest heavyweight champion ever?”
He watched as I looked up, obviously in deep thought. He answered for me.
“Marciano was good, real good,” said Fleischer. “He may have been the toughest heavyweight ever…the most determined…relentless…a banger…he could take a guy out with either hand.”
Then he paused and took a deep breath.
“But he wasn’t the best ever,” said Fleischer. “Far from it.”
“Who was?” I asked. “Was it Joe Louis?”
Fleischer shook his head.
“Jersey Joe? Gene Tunney?” I inquired.
“No sir,” said Fleischer. “The greatest was Jack Johnson.”
“Where does Marciano fit in?” I asked.
He took a pad from the table from in front of the couch, then removed a gold pen from his shirt pocket and began to write. In about a minute, he handed me his list:
1 – Jack Johnson
2 – James J. Jeffries
3 – Bob Fitzsimmons
4 – Jack Dempsey
5 – James J. Corbett
6 – Joe Louis
7 – Sam Langford
8 – Gene Tunney
9 – Max Schmeling
10- Rocky Marciano
I looked it over. I was surprised to see Marciano at #10. I asked him why he was so low.
“It’s not that’s he’s low,” explained Fleischer. The ones above him were so great.”
Just then, the TV crew arrived.
“Stay, Randy,” said Fleischer. “They’re from ABC News. They are going to interview me about the death of Rocky Marciano.”
“I’d love to watch,” I said. “I’ll stay quietly out of the way.”
I sat on the couch as around eight members of the ABC crew set up their lights, ran electric wiring along Fleischer’s office floor and duct-taped it down, checked their cameras and microphones and connected a small microphone to Fleischer’s shirt, running the wire down the back of his shirt and out to a small box connected to the back of his pants. One of the technicians powdered Fleischer’s nose and held a piece of white typing paper next to his face as they did a white balance, making sure their wasn’t too much light on the subject, causing an on-screen glare. The interview was underway within a half hour of the crew showing up.
“What was your reaction when you heard that Rocky Marciano had been killed?” Fleischer was asked.
“Like everybody else, I was stunned,” he said. “I still am.”
“Describe Rocky Marciano the fighter, Mr. Fleischer,” came the next question.
“He lived up to his nickname. He was a Rock. A boulder. He was relentless. And tireless. His defense wasn’t the best, but he didn’t mind trading punches. With Rocky, it took only one shot. Just one!”
As Fleischer was interviewed, I stared at his list of top all-time heavyweights:
10. Rocky Marciano
I had long thought Marciano would have been in the top three, but that was from hearing my dad heaping praise on him whenever we talked about the heavyweight champs.
After the interview, and after the camera crew had left, I said, “Thank you, Nat, for taking the time to meet me and stay to watch you interviewed. Before I leave, can I ask you three things?”
Sure, Randy, ask away,” said the Founder/Owner/President/Publisher & Editor-in-Chief of The Ring.
“My first question is, ‘Are the guys above Marciano in your ratings so much better? Shouldn’t he be rated a lot higher. He knocked out Louis, who you have at number six.’”
He looked at me and said, “Marciano is one of my all-time favorites. He had the biggest heart ever. Sure, he beat Louis, but Joe was a shell of himself them, and still gave Marciano a rough time. Other guys he beat, like Jersey Joe Walcott and Archie Moore were also past their prime.”
I nodded my head.
“Muhammad Ali is in exile,” I said. “If he didn’t run into draft problems and was still fighting, do you think he would have become an all-time great?”
“Cassius Clay (Fleischer always referred to Ali—even rated him—as Cassius Clay) was a big, strong, lightning-quick heavyweight. But speed and agility is all he had. Anybody in my Top 10 would have had an easy night with him.”
I remained expressionless, not wanting to tell Nat Fleischer I disagreed. Maybe another time.
“My last question, Nat, is ‘How do I get a job as boxing writer? I want to be in the business. Where do I start?’”
He placed a hand on my shoulder.
“Well, it helps to know somebody,” he said, looking directly into my eyes. Then he smiled.
“You know me,” he continued. “I will help you get your start.”
“You will?” I said with excitement.
“I will,” he replied. “When do you graduate college?”
“In two years, sir,” I answered.
“Stay in touch,” he told me. “Send me some of the articles you write for your college newspaper. When you graduate, you’ve got yourself a job.”
Excitedly, I embraced the Dean of all boxing writers.
“Thank you, Nat! Thank you!” I exclaimed.
We shook hands, and he walked me out of his office—my future office—to the elevator.
“Stay in touch, Randy,” he said.
“I will, Nat, thank you so much,” I replied.
The elevator door closed and we waved to each other.
I never saw—or spoke—to him again. A few months after we met, he celebrated his 82nd birthday. That winter, he contracted pneumonia, and the battle took its toll. He began to need more rest and went into the office less frequently. By the following year, he hardly went in at all. His son-in-law, Nat Loubet, took over the reigns of The Ring.
On June 25, 1972, a few weeks after I graduated college, Nat Fleischer went to that big arena in the sky. He was 84.
It was eerie, when, seven years later, I walked into that same office to team with Bert Randolph Sugar in rebuilding and revitalizing a near-bankrupt Ring Magazine, turning it into perhaps the finest, most-respected and widely-read boxing magazine of all time.
During those Ring years, and in the decades since, I have watched Marciano’s legacy become almost mythical. The old-timers I knew back then who knew Marciano and covered him and used to tell me stories of The Rock are long gone.
I have been asked, as a former Editor-in-Chief of The Ring, to put together my list of Top-10 heavyweights, just like Nat Fleischer did and just like Bert Sugar did. Joe Louis was #1 on Sugar’s list. Marciano was #6.
I can’t do a list. Lord knows I’ve tried.
That’s because dreams die hard. As a kid, Rocky Marciano was among the greatest, if not THE greatest. Today, he’s a mythical name who my Italian friends love to talk about and ask if I think he was the best heavyweight ever.
It’s tough for me to tell them he wasn’t the greatest heavyweight champ ever, probably not even a Top-10 All-Time Heavyweight Champ.
Occasionally, I’ll look skywards and ask Nat Fleischer and Bert Sugar for help, saying, “I am about to put together my Top-10 heavyweights. Where do I put Muhammad Ali? Where do I put Jack Johnson. Where do I put Joe Louis? How about Rocky Marciano? What do I do with him?”
When my book comes out, and I have my chapter of Lists, I just my leave my list of Top-10 heavyweights blank.
I still have no idea where to put Rocky Marciano.